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A & S News

A New (Tele)Vision

Sept. 28, 2009

This story by Barbara Elmore originally appeared in the spring 2009 issue of the Arts and Sciences magazine.

In the 70 years since television was first mass-marketed at the World's Fair in New York, major improvements in the tube have occurred routinely. But one of the biggest was set to occur Feb. 17 with the intention that it would create little more than a blip on millions of television screens.

That change is the conversion to all-digital TV. Best estimates are that only about 9 percent of TV viewers still watch television over the air channels as opposed to cable or other delivery systems, says a Baylor professor well-versed in the process. Those viewers needed only a converter box to make the adjustment.

However, with a government-funded coupon program for converters running out of money before the switch, President Obama wants to delay the implementation of all-digital broadcasting so that millions of sets would not go dark. As this story goes to press, Feb. 17 is still the target date for the nationwide switch, but that could change.

When the change finally does occur, viewers may or may not notice a sharper picture with better color and sound. Digital's efficient transmission technology does allows for those improvements, but people with newer televisions probably have seen many improvements already over the years, as broadcasters have already been transmitting programs digitally.

But other changes are on their way, too, many of them bearing Baylor's mark through the  influence of professors who are deeply involved in studying and creating new technologies. Their expertise and professional activities inform their classrooms as changing technology disrupts the industry and creates new opportunities.

So what might the next 70 years of television look like? To see the future a bit more clearly, we first should take a look at history.

The first era of TV
Television remains as fantastic today – in some ways, even more so – as it was in 1939, when the first big promotion of "the tube" occurred at the New York World's Fair. World War II interrupted TV's grand march into our homes, although broadcasting continued during those years. Thus, by the 1950s, the TV set was like "a new member of the household," says the Museum of Television.  

Rick Bradfield, a part-time lecturer at Baylor and director of new media at KWTX-TV, notes that one of the most stunning qualities of today's televised news when compared to early broadcasts is its immediacy. He contrasts delayed reporting of the attack on Pearl Harbor with the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy: "We watched the attack live and in real time."

Although in-the-moment coverage offers its own set of problems, advances in technology have helped secure television's place in the realms of education, journalism and entertainment. .

Melding modern art and modern science
Television's newest magic flows from the work of people who understand where art meets science and how to use the profound pairing to advance both. Two of these people are Baylor professors Dr. Michael Korpi and Dr. Corey Carbonara. Although they will be pleased to see digital television standards take effect, they were not caught in a test pattern as they waited for the switch. They have been mapping new frontiers at Baylor since the early 1980s because of their unique understanding of the technology and their desire to ensure Baylor students get the chance to not only study and work in the industry, but to leave their own marks on it.  

Their research has allowed them to establish connections in markets like Hollywood and New York, and to publish in venues that give Baylor high visibility, like the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Their students accompany them on their journeys. "We took students along every time we shot video and film," says Korpi, referring to a project in which he shot side-by-side tests of Super 16mm vs. 35mm film and transferred the 16 mm to HDTV – something that others proclaimed impossible.

Their students also go to the annual conventions of the National Association of Broadcasters. At one convention, because of Baylor's relationship with Sony, the students worked for the company at the convention. "They were dressed like Sony employees and had the badges," Korpi says. The exposure put the students in the role of speaking with authority to executives in high places. Such experiences give students a strong background, not only in technology, but also in understanding how the industry works. This translates into internships and jobs, Korpi says.

Transcending old and new technology
New technology aside, television's important role in our culture means that leaders must be concerned with viewers who watch programming on small sets with "rabbit ears" as well as massive, cable-connected flat screens featuring the latest technology. These differences mean that technological confusion will be a part of the industry for years to come. Manufacturers have contributed to the confusion. As Carbonara notes, they have been using the words "high-definition" for decades to describe ever-higher resolution levels on their new TVs because the words can position a company as more advanced than its competitors.

In fact, in the excitement surrounding the mass marketing of television at the World's Fair, RCA President David Sarnoff called his company's "high-definition" TV sets a new era in television. Says Carbonara: "High definition has always been seen as a distinguishing factor to allow people to have excitement about television. [RCA officials] were just so happy to have more lines of resolution than their competitor[s] that they were going to tell the world they had something better."

Today, however, "high definition TV" means something very specific. Arriving at an official standard for HDTV  took decades, with Carbonara and Korpi, among others, helping to shape the modern standard. The major differences between the old and new technology are these:  

  • HDTV features black and white detail four times greater than standard TV.
  • HDTV’s color fidelity is 10 times greater.
  • The horizontal dimension of the screen is one-third larger.
  • HDTV features six-channel sound.

 

"That's the lay definition," Carbonara adds. "Simple and direct."

The panel that hammered out the definition was the Advanced Television Systems Committee, and establishing an accurate definition was important, says Korpi. "There were other improved television systems but they weren't as good as what we ended up with," he says. "And they called themselves high definition until we established this definition." 

Carbonara, who first represented Sony on the Advanced Television Systems Committee, left the company for Baylor in 1986 but stayed on the committee. That meant Baylor had a seat at the table with such universities as Columbia and MIT. "Each company wanted to have the gold at the end of this [process]," Carbonara says. "They wanted to see their standard adopted. We got an amalgamation of different elements. It took almost 10 years before a clean standard was adopted." The FCC adopted the standards in 1993.

Committee members voted on every technical element, adds Korpi. For example, the audio standards passed by one vote. "We like to say that's because Baylor voted for it," he says, chuckling. 

Congress agreed that the committee's standards would become the HDTV standard in the United States, and President Bush signed the mandate in 2006.  

What comes next
The HDTV conversion has many implications for broadcasting. The latest frontiers for the professors include digital cinema, says Korpi. "The studios always want a good, clear reason for people to go to a theater instead of staying at home," he says. Ultra-high digital resolution can provide that.

Korpi, who is director of the Film and Digital Media Division at Baylor, and Carbonara, a professor in the telecommunications division of communication studies, are also working on broadcasting sports programs into homes using 3D technology.  Both members of the Academy of Digital Television Pioneers, they see the technology's broad uses, too. "Think of what it can do for education, medicine, forensic science," Carbonara says.

Technological advances also offer new options to television news, Bradfield says. One is broadcasting local news directly to cell phones. "The role that a local television station played for 30 years is no longer a role we are going to need to play," he says, describing  programming that is now available from many outlets. Since local TV stations cover local news best, transmitting this information directly to cell phones could be local TV's salvation, he says.

So, what will be the next big advancement in television – or the "communal fireplace," as Bradfield describes it?

Stayed tuned. You will likely not have to adjust your set.